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Replacing four starting offensive linemen entering last season threatened to derail the Gophers football team's dominance in the trenches established under coach P.J. Fleck.

Aireontae Ersery's emergence, though, helped to keep that reputation alive.

After getting his first full-time starting role last year, the 6-6, 325-pound junior left tackle is next in line for the Gophers' recently heralded string of tackles, including 2021 All-Big Ten first-team selections Daniel Faalele and Blaise Andries.

Ersery's personality, talent and leadership qualities are as massive as his frame. But recalling the first game of his career as a true freshman, he used the word "tremendously" to describe how much he's grown since his rough start against Nebraska three years ago.

"I didn't know my head from my butt," Ersery joked. "I came a long way, a long way, man. I still remember that."

Ersery played only two games in his first two seasons before starting all 13 games at left tackle in 2022. The Kansas City, Mo., native is one of two returning starters on the offensive line this season, including former Notre Dame transfer Quinn Carroll, who moved from right tackle to right guard.

Ersery knows how important his role is this season to protect Athan Kaliakmanis, the projected starting quarterback and new leader of the U offense.

"Guys who have been on the offensive line have been here before, so we're gelling really well right now," Ersery said about the new starters. "I like to take that responsibility of protecting [Kaliakmanis'] blind side and having pride in that."

Another thing Ersery takes great pride in is his footwork for his size. He was a standout thrower on the track team in high school. But he attributes the foot speed to playing basketball and dancing growing up, comparing his massive presence on the court to Shaquille O'Neal.

"I think that's where it came from," Ersery said. "When I was a child, we used to dance all the time in front of family. 'Party in the USA.' That was a good [song]. We used to go to the swimming pool, and they used to play that."

Wide receiver Daniel Jackson, who grew up in Kansas City, Kan., can't recall Ersery being known for his dance moves when they crossed paths as kids. But beyond being the life of the party, Ersery instills confidence into the team with his toughness on the field, Jackson said.

"You can tell he's an NFL-caliber player," Jackson said. "You can really see it in every drill we do and the team periods we have. Off the field, we're from the same city. I've known him for quite a while. He's a funny guy. He's a joy to be around. He's a leader."

The Gophers defensive ends hoping to improve their pass rush this season had to test themselves against Ersery in camp. One of the top NFL prospects at his position in the Big Ten didn't take it easy on them.

"It was fun," Ersery said. "I get to legally hit somebody without getting into trouble. I love putting on the pads. I was screaming the first day we got to put on pads in the locker room at the defensive line."

As a first-year starting center, senior Nathan Boe appreciates having Ersery alongside him protecting Kaliakmanis this season. Another stellar year from the Gophers' big Aristotle has a chance to make the entire offensive line better.

"When he comes off the ball, he's a force of nature," Boe said. "He's a huge guy and he's super-strong in the weight room. He really translates that well on the field. And he's a really good teammate as well."